Where I Should Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place

Where I Should Be: A Writer's Sense of Place

Titles can’t be copyrighted, so I am using most of one created by Native American writer, Louise Erdrich. The piece is from The New York Times Book Review of July, 1985. It is wrinkled and worn. That’s okay. The words are what matter.

Yes, it’s the words. Ten days ago my computer died. All I could think about was THE WORDS. All my notes, the newest version of my novel, other pieces and novels stored on my hard drive. I’ve been a fortunate person, only losing personal items in a major flood years ago: scrapbooks of clippings about Queen Elizabeth II; form letters from Buckingham Palace, the White House. And books, so many soggy books. But when you think you might have lost hours of words—but my data was saved. Thanks Geek Squad.

So I am back in my place, writing about my place, allowing the scenery and the sounds of my life that are part of me to fall onto the page.

WRITING IS ALWAYS ABOUT PLACE

Erdrich writers: In a tribal view of the world, where one place has been inhabited for generations, the landscape becomes enlivened by a sense of group and family history. …a traditional storyteller fixes listeners in an unchanging landscape combined of myth and reality. People and place are inseparable. 

When I read these words, I realize they are welded to my novel which takes place in a northside neighborhood of Chicago, that could be Rogers Park, near where I went to college. I say, could be, because novel writing allows imagination to alter things. When my novel begins with the main character (MC) not wanting to move from that neighborhood, I can relate to the twenty years I lived on a tree-lined street south of Chicago, where hop scotch squares filled the sidewalk and your bike was really the pony that took you round and round a few Chicago blocks. And in the first few pages of my novel, I strive to take you to that place in my memory that might carry you to something similar. Because PEOPLE AND PLACE ARE INSEPARABLE.

She pushed on, feet slapping on sidewalks, one cement square worn, another fractured—prickly weeds breaking through—the familiar straight-on Chicago blocks of her Near North Side neighborhood. Step on a crack? Break your mother’s back…Change was endemic to living, and it was happening here, block after block, street after street, yet the place still familiar, like lines on her palms: the brick house whose roof collapsed, needing a year for repair; its frame neighbor whose garage burned down, never rebuilt; the row houses on Lawn Avenue, most in need of paint, all ornamented with containers of scarlet geraniums, planters of white petunias. After all, it was past Mother’s Day, planting time. And the house on the corner of Lawn and Lunt, a warped “Welcome” sign on the door of its disintegrating summer porch—screens never washed or repaired, rips increasing to be penetrated by bees and mosquitoes as well as slanting sleet.

I can sit at my computer in Southern California and unite myself once again with the sounds, smells and experience of a great part of my life. As Erdrich writers: Our suburbs and suburban life may be more sustaining and representative monuments than Mount Rushmore. 

DO YOU THINK ABOUT PLACE WHEN CHOOSING A BOOK?

Many readers follow patterns in their reading choices. They read everything by authors who write about the Outer Banks or New Orleans, New York City, New England, Great Britain, Nazi Germany, Russia. Eudora Welty writes about PLACE in fiction, begging for some permanence to sustain that fiction: It is only too easy to conceive that a bomb that could destroy all traces of places as we know them, in life and through books, could also destroy all feelings as recognition, memory, history, valor, love, all the instincts of poetry and praise, worship and endeavor, are bound up in place.

The ability to read a poem, watch a film, or even see a film clip of a news event means more to us, stays with us–if there is recognition of PLACE–either that specific place, or in fiction, one that haunts, brings back memories, places you on the sidewalk where the screens of a porch require repair. Or pulls you in so that for the time you are reading you say: Here I am, and where I want to be. Erdrich insists that a writer must have a place to love and to be irritated with. She writes: Through the study of a place, its crops, products, paranoias, dialects and failures, we come closer to our own reality. It is difficult to impose a story and a plot on a place. But truly knowing a place provides the link between details and meaning. LOCATION, whether it is to abandon it or draw it sharply, is where we start.

Yes, we all start someplace and often we take that place into our hearts when we move or leave our beginnings. But they stay with us. In airplanes we can escape gravity, but when we look down, we cannot escape the need to identify with some place on the earth–a place either big or small that rises up to hold us so that we call it home.

Reading a work of fiction can pull you into another world, but that story will not resonate, will not hold you if there isn’t something within the tale that you have already felt or experienced. There must be a touchstone to your reality or experience to keep you reading: the Chicago sidewalk, the New York skyline, the openness of the hero, the strength of the heroine, the sorrow or joy that ends the tale. So please, keep reading. Writers depend on you.

Photo Credit: I don’t know. Probably my brother John or one of my “always-taking-photos” beloved Aunts.

12 thoughts on “Where I Should Be: A Writer’s Sense of Place

  1. The memories,….that picture…it holds something for me…of my grandmother’s house, me looking in…wondering what cookies she has in the pantry today.

    And your novel…yes it still captivates me. This line is one I remember that stirs up emotions like that picture does.

    Ella’s hand shook. It was only a pen, only her name to go on the bottom of a piece of paper. Wrong. This was a scalpel, about to cut into her life and irreparably damage it.

    David was upstairs. She could hear him talking—on the phone with someone, probably the realtor salivating for her signature. She set the pen aside. What had he called down to her moments ago? “I know you love this place, but stop with the memories…”

    Readers need to read your novel Beth!

    • Carol,

      Thanks always for you support and for making my day. So appreciated. The picture is me in front of the house I was raised in. I wish a photo like that for everyone. Thanks for your memory from the novel. Amazing. I am almost finished with my edits and will start to query again. I am going to write to a few authors and ask their help. I feel like I am losing time. I hope you are well. Autumn approaches and I wish you color and brisk walks. Fondly, Beth

  2. So, so grateful you got your words back! I would have been truly devastated! I once spent an entire flight back from somewhere writing something amazing, only to discover when I got home that it wasn’t anywhere. 4 hours of writing just . . . gone. And you never get it quite right again. Sigh

    • Thanks, friend. I totally know how that feels. I still have folders of typed pages just in case. Some of it isn’t worth saving, but—maybe it is. Beth

  3. You must of had a good back up on your computer! Glad it worked out. A sense of place is a character in a book often. Yes I will read books that resonate with me in a locale and other locations I am just not that interested.

    • Thanks Haralee. When I choose a novel I often have to walk away if I cannot identify with the place. Maybe that’s not right on my part, but some environments speak to me more than others.

  4. Beth, I enjoyed this post and can identify in so many ways. Mainly I write memoir… which is what a lot of my blogs are, but I was a journalist, a magazine writer and have written fiction as well. Last week I discovered people are “place” as well. My current post is an interview with the founder of Guided Imagery. Her “Grief” guided imagery audio helped me after my husband died. My breakthrough was her image of “everybody who loves you, past, present and future, is gathered around you.” When I think about that, or picture her words, the “place” I see in my mind is all of those people. No room, house or town. Just faces. She and I talked about the people we carry with us… crowds and crowds of people who sustain us. We don’t even know we’re doing it, but we’re leaning on them, and they’re helping us all the time. Brenda

  5. I love the photo of you running towards the front walk at our home in Chicago. I would like to get a close up so I could peer into the living room and see the couch with the flowered drapes. The old piano. The golden hour clock. The little phonograph sitting between the dining room and the living room where I spent hours listening to 45’s. My first training for my career 🙂 Yes, that “sense of place” did much for all of us, just as your words continue to do so now. THANKS!!! Keep on……

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